***½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Vernon Wells
screenplay by Steven E. de Souza
directed by Mark L. Lester
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I first saw Mark L. Lester's Commando as a young boy and even then I was rather surprised that Arnold Schwarzenegger's eponymous hero, John Matrix, didn't get together with his reluctant sidekick, Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong). She's set up to be the love interest, but the filmmakers never pull the trigger. I was similarly baffled by the saccharine relationship between Matrix and his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). In my youthful naivety, I frankly thought this was too hokey for an R-rated movie, i.e., a movie intended for grown-ups. What audience of adults would buy into this? And I couldn't believe that the film would be about her kidnapping and Matrix tracking down and rescuing her. It's just the hero invading the castle and saving the damsel-in-distress? Hell, Star Wars wasn't that basic. There had to be some socio-political nuance to the situation I simply wasn't old enough to grasp.
I'll begin by noting that this is a compact film. Barely reaching the ninety-minute mark, it doesn't waste a frame on anything that isn't either exposition or action. Easy but entirely warranted to hold this 1985 release up as the perfect antidote to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Lester's style of filmmaking is sparse and direct. There's purity to it. You can appreciate the stunts as stunts, the explosions as explosions, and the fights as fights. The excesses of Michael Bay (e.g., his dizzying 360° pans) have appropriately been interpreted as auteur trademarks--his filmmaking is all about getting you to acknowledge him. Instead of trying to put his personal stamp on Commando, Lester does his best to stay out of the way. I'd like to confess something: I couldn't follow Transformers 2. By which I mean, I doubt I would've passed a test about the plot on my way out of the theatre. Stripping away considerations of content or the politics of the marketplace and looking solely at how the film was put together, Bay's film is too complex for me to decipher.
The idea that simplicity is preferable to complexity is possibly a dangerous one. Theoretically, at least, I'm not opposed to the idea of a two-and-a-half-hour giant-robot movie that aims to be the most important work of cinematic art in the 21st century. I'm rather repulsed by the idea that aiming low and succeeding is better than aiming high and failing. The real problem with Bay is that he has become so involved with the shadow of reality that he's lost the ability to address reality on its own terms. He's a product of film school, where aesthetics are intellectualized to the point that somebody could make it their life purpose to figure out new ways of photographing objects and placing them in montage. I don't think Mark Lester would be as adept as Michael Bay in explaining, in as great detail, why he made the choices he did; I sincerely believe that more thought went into the execution of Transformers 2. With Lester, though, you're able to see the forest for the trees. The simplicity of Commando not only renders it a superior action film, one that is much more satisfying than Transformers 2--it also gives it greater power as mythology.
Jenny is kidnapped by the overthrown Central American dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya) to coerce Matrix into committing a political assassination. To capture Jenny and Matrix, Arius has solicited the help of Wes Bennett (Vernon Wells), a former captain from Matrix's Special Forces team. Bennett was kicked out because he loved killing "a little too much." He doesn't care about the revolution and he doesn't care about money. He says he did the job for free! What he cares about is humbling Matrix. While Arius is clearly the catalyst, it's Bennett who is the film's true supervillain. Arius's inevitable death is casual and understated. He's merely another of the many bodies Matrix plows through at the climax of the picture. Bennett, however, warrants a proper "mano a mano" showdown. Taunts, a choreographed knife fight, the works.
Commando fits a template I've long attributed to Sergio Leone's Man with No Name Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West, whereby gods, whose greatness is completely independent of their moral character, uncomfortably co-exist in a world of inferior mortals. Lightly satirized and sentimentalized in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, fruitfully subverted in No Country for Old Men, and just plain bungled in Troy Duffy's The Boondock Saints, the use of this mythology in Commando boils away those lingering socio-political overtones and transforms the film into a fairytale. Virtually a children's film, even.
As with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which dramatized Kierkegaard's aesthetic life/ethical life dilemma, the values embodied by the hero and the villain of Commando are necessarily opposing but equally undesirable. Matrix is the personification of the forces of Good whereas Bennett is the personification of the forces of Evil. What exactly differentiates Good and Evil in this instance? Well, basically, you're evil if you like killing "a little too much." Moreover, the indulgence of one's sexual urges is Evil, while the repression of them is Good. All sex is rape in this movie. It's always sadistic and always invasive. The only reason you would want to have sex with someone is to dominate and humiliate them.
Rae Dawn Chong's Cindy isn't only harassed by Sully (a typecast David Patrick Kelly, of Dreamscape and "Twin Peaks" fame), the weasely henchman who calls her a "fucking whore" when she rebukes him: pulling up alongside two cops who have arrested Matrix for breaking into an army-surplus store, she's subjected to cat-calls and accused of being a hooker. Granted, it's necessary that the cops be unsympathetic--Cindy needs to blow up their vehicle if she is to save Matrix. But by making them unsympathetic in this way, the filmmakers have effectively normalized sexual harassment. They're not saying it's okay or good, but because these officers are presumably otherwise normal people who aren't corrupt or part of Arius's crew, we get the idea that this kind of harassment is common, nay, natural. And because the film does not provide an alternative, "positive" model for sexual behaviour, this sadistic/invasive model serves as the exclusive one.
Sully tips Matrix twenty dollars before he leaves and tells him to buy some beers, as it will "give us all a little more time with your daughter." One of Arius's revolutionaries says that slitting a little girl's throat is like cutting warm butter. Bennett, however, is the ultimate manifestation of sexual deviancy. Andy McDermott, in the film magazine HOT DOG, describes Bennett's clothing ensemble as "Freddie Mercury casual. Leather trousers, a chunky string vest with a belt worn over it, what looks like a bike chain around his neck--all that's missing is a studded armband." The man isn't merely gay, he's über-gay. So, wait--because he's gay, that means he's a bigger sexual deviant than the guy savouring the thought of slitting a little girl's throat? Yeah, I know. In discussions of Bennett's none-too-latent homosexuality, it's often speculated that he is in love with Matrix and angry that his affections have gone unreturned. More precisely, Bennett wants to rape John Matrix. And by rape, I'm talking sadistic rape. I'm saying that the image of Matrix bruised, defeated, and bleeding out his rectum turns Bennett on. He wants Matrix more than he wants Jenny because Matrix makes for a better trophy. Why would anybody want to rape a little girl? Where's the fun in that?
Which is why Bennett is offended when the soldier talks about slitting the girl's throat. Bennett tells him, "Put the knife away and shut your mouth," then tells Arius, "I really love listening to your piss-head soldiers trying to talk tough. They make me laugh." He doesn't have any moral issue with killing Jenny. When he receives the go-ahead from Arius, he's the first to take out his knife and head for her quarters. Furthermore, we sense he's going to enjoy the experience, as it means he'll be hurting Matrix indirectly. What angers him is that this soldier is going to indulge his rape/murder/kill impulse on a harmless child object. It reminds him that he's in the company of inferior men and that his only true peer is Matrix. As he tells Arius, "Your men are nothing. Matrix and I could kill every single one of them in the blink of an eye. Remember that." Homophobia seems such an inadequate word for what's going on here. Commando is saying that "real men," the Leone-ian gods Bennett and Matrix represent, only rape other real men and that heterosexuality (through the unsavoury Sully, we might lump in the attraction to adult woman with the attraction to juveniles) is a sign of mediocrity.
Matrix not only does not see Bennett the way Bennett sees him, he is, in our estimation, utterly asexual as well. His intimacy needs are satiated by his paternal relationship with his daughter, to the extent that he and Cindy have no sexual chemistry, either. In the last shots of the film, Cindy extends her hand to Jenny and helps her into a helicopter, strongly suggesting that she will assume a maternal role in her life down the road. Yet should the three of them somehow form a family, you can bet this will be a marriage where Dad never touches Mom. Matrix's early life with Jenny is idyllic to a fault--Lester goes so far as to crib a bit from Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows by having Matrix and Jenny feed a deer. This reference is noteworthy for the way it places Matrix in the Rock Hudson role. As a superhuman god, Matrix must be a homosexual, but the film's code of morality necessitates that he is a repressed homosexual. Or maybe "repressed" isn't the right word. There isn't a struggle within Matrix because he has conquered those yearnings and no longer worries about entertaining them.
Accordingly, Matrix is not a morally ambiguous character, and the violence he commits throughout Commando is done without pleasure. Though he repeatedly cracks wise ("Remember when I told you that I would kill you last? I lied"), it never feels terribly organic. When John McClane jokes around in Die Hard, we realize that it's a coping mechanism to release tension, as he is essentially a human being understandably freaked-out about his predicament. There is no such tension within Matrix. When he says that he's going to kill you, it isn't a threat, it's an eventuality. His wisecracks are more like deliberate artifice designed to accentuate his iconic, godlike status and the mediocrity of his foes. He evinces no desire to humiliate them, but we need to see them humiliated in order to get the point. This implies that we identify more with Sully and Bennett than with Matrix, and I suppose that's true. If we identified with Matrix, he would no longer be of any use to us. The death-match between the de-sexualized Matrix and the hyper-sexualized Bennett is fascinating once we see the violence as a stand-in for sex. Matrix tells Bennett to throw away the "chickenshit gun" and come at him with a knife. He taunts that he knows Bennett wants to stick it in him and look into his eyes while he twists it. Bennett goggles at the promise of finally killing Matrix and falls for the bait. They struggle and Matrix ends up impaling Bennett on a giant steel pipe. As Bennett's body relaxes and water vapour hisses through the pipe's opening, Matrix wisecracks, "Let off some steam, Bennett." Matrix wound up on top and Bennett was the one penetrated. Adding insult to injury, Bennett is the only one who comes. The superior--indeed, superhuman--Matrix has moved beyond the material need for orgasm. In other words, he has defeated Bennett and is too evolved to actually enjoy it.
The asceticism/rape dichotomy is based on the idea that sexuality is inexpressible in a pro-social or intimate fashion. This is certainly a very warped way to view the world, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's false. It's not a claim that can be proved or disproved. Commando doesn't offer the viewer any value system to identify with or aspire to. It doesn't hit you where you live. The film is fascinating, though, in that it reminds us how concepts of good and evil are always relativist and culturally specific. Yes, the real world is rarely black and white, but one man's black is another man's white. Any movie about the battle between good and evil is going to reveal something of the culture that spawned it, even a supposedly mainstream action blockbuster like this. Although Commando may be a simple film, don't take that to mean it rewards complacency.
Released exclusively to DVD in 2007, a director's cut of Commando offers minor variations on the theatrical version, all detrimental. A scene in which Matrix explains to Cindy why he has kidnapped her is expanded to go into the death of his wife and how he had missed his daughter growing up. This does little to clarify Cindy's rationale for helping him and slows the movie down besides. In the moment where Arius tells Jenny that it would be nice for her to see her father again, her retort, "Not nearly as nice as watching him smash your face in," becomes, "Not nearly as nice as watching him kick your ass." The use of vulgarity from a 12-year-old is hardly shocking and doesn't compare with the idea of her enjoying the sight of her captor's face being smashed in, which still has some kick to it. Finally, the tool-shed sequence, with Matrix murdering and maiming the Val Verde soldiers with machetes and pitchforks, has additional grue. The effect is one of overkill, nullifying the absurd hilarity of the ultra-violence. I had to rewind the shot where Matrix amputates a soldier's arm, because I couldn't believe I'd seen what I thought I saw. The same bit is almost redundant in the Director's Cut. None of these changes is significant enough to lose sleep over, but if you're seeing Commando for the first time, stick with the original, presented via seamless branching as an alternate viewing option on this disc.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Commando on the "Director's Cut" DVD has been remastered from the initial 1999 release. Colours are less than dynamic and there is minor wear-and-tear, but it looks good for a twenty-year-old title and adequately conveys director Lester's self-described "pop art" sensibility. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is well-balanced and resonant, albeit hemispheric. There's also a feature-length audio commentary by Lester, and on the surface, his friendly, Boy Scout leader persona seems hilariously at odds with the movie in question. Who would have thought that Commando was directed by Ned Flanders? Lester tellingly admits to studying the work of Leni Riefenstahl in creating the muscle montage that introduces Matrix and assures us, "Even though they were Nazi films, they had some amazing filmmaking in them." Later, he says he never understood why people thought Bennett was gay: "He seems like the most macho soldier or person you could think of." Lester makes good on the technical information, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, changes from the original script, et cetera but appears to particularly relish pointing out the locations. Commando was filmed in and around the L.A. area and Lester demonstrates a personal connection with the city. He laments that you could no longer shoot a film like this, especially at LAX--the city is just too crowded and overregulated today. Occasionally, it's like you're visiting a corny uncle determined to take you sightseeing. That said, this is a fun track; I'm not sure I can imagine a better yakker for Commando.
Next we have a batch of featurettes. "Commando: Let Off Some Steam" (7 mins.) focuses on the use of humour in the film. Rae Dawn Chong, who details how Arnold Schwarzenegger is a perfect genetic specimen, dominates the piece. The topic of Bennett's sexual orientation is broached and cannily nothing is confirmed or denied. Of interest is a closing title card informing us that the film's body count is 81. "Pure Action" (15 mins.) is a broader take on the making and legacy of Commando. We get to hear Mark Lester mispronounce "quintessential" and reveal that he first met Joel Silver at the Playboy mansion when they were both in pyjamas. Hoo-boy! Screenwriter Steven E. de Souza recalls pitching the film to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arnie lighting up because here was a chance, after Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator, to play a "normal" person. "Deleted Scenes" runs a scant three minutes, culminating in a series of alternate one-liners Schwarzenegger tries out upon killing Bennett. Rounding out the platter are four stills galleries. Originally published: March 2, 2010.